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Islam & Pluralism
 A Contemporary Approach  

Shah Abdul Halim
  Chairman of Islamic Information
  Bureau--Bangladesh

08/05/2003

Pluralism and Freedom

Islam is mistakenly labeled intolerant by the West on the basis of the old ruling of the Muslims jurists that if a Muslim leaves Islam or converted to some other religion such person is beheaded for being murtad (leaving Islam). But eminent contemporary Islamic scholars hold different view on the basis of a renewed ijtihad, research and investigation. The West however continues to beat drum and propagate that Islam is against the freedom of conscience and Muslims do not believe in liberty, free will and choice. In fact there is not a single instance that Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) did treat apostasy as a prescribed offence under hudud (capital punishment) only for leaving Islam. The Prophet (pbuh) never put anyone to death for apostasy alone rather he let such person go unharmed. No one was sentenced to death solely for renunciation of faith unless accompanied by hostility and treason or was linked to an act of political betrayal of the community. As a matter of fact the Quran is completely silent on the question of death as a punishment for apostasy. Apostasy does not qualify for temporal punishment. In fact the Supreme Court of Malaysia ruled that conversion to Christianity by a Muslim is not a punishable offence1.

Mohammad Hashim  Kamali put forwarded verse 137 of Chapter 4 (Surat An Nisa) as conclusive proof of argument against the death penalty for apostasy:: “Those who believe, then disbelieve, then believe again, then disbelieve and then increase in their disbelief – God will never forgive them nor guide them to the path”. Commenting on the verse Mohammad Hashim Kamali pointed out: “The implication is unmistakable. The text would hardly entertain the prospect of repeated belief and disbelief if death were to be the prescribed punishment for the initial act. It is also interesting to note that the initial reference to disbelief is followed by further confirmation of disbelief and then ‘increase in disbelief’. One might be inclined to think that if the first instance of apostasy did not qualify for capital punishment, the repeated apostasy might have provoked it – had such a punishment ever been intended in the Quran”[emphasis added]2.

Mohammad Hashim Kamali pointed out to the hadith, the Saying of the Prophet (saws) which “makes it clear that the apostate must also boycott the community (muifariq lil-jamaah) and challenge its legitimate leadership, in order to be subjected to death penalty”3: “The blood of a Muslim who professes  that there is no god but Allah and that I am His Messenger, is sacrosanct except in three cases: a married adulterer; a person who has killed another human being; and a person who has abandoned his religion, while splitting himself off from the community (muifariq lil-jamaah)”4.

Imam Ibn Taymiyyah explaining the aforementioned hadith of the Prophet (pbuh) inferred that “the crime referred to in the hadith under discussion is that of high treason (hirabah) and not apostasy (riddah) as such”5.

S. A. Rahman, former Chief Justice of Pakistan while discussing in his monograph ‘The Punishment of Apostasy in Islam’ looked “into the evidence in the Quran and the Sunnah in detail, and draws attention to the fact that the Quran is silent on the question of death as the punishment for apostasy, despite this subject occurring no less then twenty times in the Holy Book” [ibid p 93].  Judge Rahman examined the hadith “kill whoever changes his religion” (man baddala dinahu faqtuluhu) and found “some weakness in the transmission (isnad)”6. Judge S. A. Rahman’s conclusion is also supported by other evidence, such as the fact that neither Prophet (pbuh) himself, nor any of his Companions ever compelled anyone to embrace Islam, nor did they sentence anyone to death solely for renunciation of faith7. Judge Rahman’s view is supported by such eminent earlier scholars as Ibrahim al Nakhai and Sufyan al Thawri (both held the view that “apostate should be re-invited to Islam but should never be condemned to death”), the renowned Hanafi jurist Shams al Din al Sarakhsi (“apostasy does not qualify for temporal punishment”), Malaki jurist al Baji (“apostasy is a sin which carries no prescribed penalty, hadd”) and modern scholars as Abd al Hakim al Ili and Ismail al Badawi (apostasy to be punishable by death has to be  “political in character and aimed at the inveterate enemies of Islam”), Mahmud Shaltut (“apostasy carries no temporal penalty”), Mahmassani (“death penalty was meant to apply, not to simple act of apostasy from Islam, but when apostasy was linked to an act of political betrayal of the community”). Selim el Awa raised a very rational argument that if the hadith “whoever renounces his religion shall be killed” is literally applied it would be applicable also “to Christians, who convert to Judaism and vice versa” which “manifestly fall outside the intention” of the hadith8.

The great Iranian scholar Ayatollah Mutahhari highlighted the incompatibility of the coercion with the sprit of Islam, and the basic redundancy of punitive measures in the propagation of its message. He wrote that it is impossible to force anyone to acquire the kind of faith that is required by Islam, just as “it is not possible to spank a child into solving an arithmetical problem. His mind and thought must be left free in order that he may solve it. The Islamic faith is something of this kind”9.

Dr. Hassan Turabi, the ideologue of the Sudanese Islamic movement, raised a very pertinent rational argument on the validity of the opinion of those scholars who hold the view that apostasy in Islam is punishable by death. He pointed out:

“How can it be imagined by a rational person that Allah, Who has compelled none to believe, allows us the right to compel others and force them to believe?... If Almighty Allah has granted us the merit of freedom, he who wants to believe is allowed that right and so too the one who wants to disbelieve. If He has chosen to distinguish us from other creatures through His gift of freedom, instead of creating us believers by necessity like stones, mountains, and the earth, which all fear the responsibility of freedom shouldered by Man, the ignorant, the unjust; if that is so, then the exercise of that freedom will become a matter of course – a self-evident truth confirmed by the Quran as in, ‘No one is to be compelled to believe’… At the time of the Prophet Mohammad, peace be upon him, the Quran tells us of those who believed and then disbelieved again and so forth. The opinion of the people of those days changed so easily and freely – between belief and disbelief – that it appeared to swing like a pendulum… The Prophet’s saying about apostasy is a short statement pronounced within the context of war conditions. Muslims were greatly affected to see one of their companions desert his faith and join the ranks of disbelievers. They were not sure if they should kill him or spare his life because he was a Muslim once. The Prophet, peace be upon him, explained that one who abandons his religion and deserts his fellows should be killed. Regrettably, people of the subsequent generations have taken the Prophet’s saying out of its historical context and generalized it. In so doing they deny one of the basic truths of Islam: the freedom of faith…The saying is related to the case of the Muslim who deserts his fellows and joins the enemies of Islam. Such a person will either be killed or kill someone else” 10 [ibid].

It is therefore clear that the Prophet’s saying about the apostate is restricted to times of war, when a Muslim deserter joins the ranks of the enemies to wage war against Islam, rather than seeing this hadith as a measure for controlling the faith of those who do not bear arms.  


1- Mohammad Hashim Kamali. ‘Freedom of Expression in Islam’. Ilmiah Publishers: Kuala Lumpur. 1998, pp 87-107.

2- Ibid., pp 97-98.

3- Ibid.,  p 96.

4- Muslim. Mukhtasar Sahih Muslim,  p., 271.Hadith No. 1023. Quoted in ‘Freedom of Expression in Islam’ p 96.

5- Ibn Taymiyyah. Al Sarim Al Maslul. p 52. Quoted in ‘Freedom of Expression in Islam’, p 96.

6- Ibid p 93.

7- Judge S. A. Rahman, “The Punishment of Apostasy in Islam”. pp 63-64. Quoted in ‘Freedom of Expression in Islam’, p 93.

8- Ibid., pp. 93-95.

9- Ayatollah Mutahhari. ‘Islam and the Freedom of Thought and Belief’’. Al Tawhid. p 154. Quoted in Freedom of Expression in Islam. p. 95.

10- Al Mustakillah. Issue No. 96. 11 March 1996. English translation by The Diplomat, UK.

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